Tag Archives: Zammuto

2014 Year-End Wrap Up (Part One: The best of the year)

This has probably been the craziest year of my life.  The reasons why go a bit outside the scope of this blog but suffice to say it’s pretty much had it all.  As far as the music world goes, well who knows, since as usual I’m way behind on new releases.  But I’ve listened to a few and I’m here to detail ’em all for you, since who knows when I’ll get around to really writing about any of this.  Before we get into it, let’s look at what I’ve really been listening to in 2014:

2014artists

BT as #1 isn’t really a surprise – not only did I do a feature on him but I’ve also been playing several of his albums on a regular basis.  Many of his albums come with a bonus disc, plus there are lengthy compilations of remixes and OST’s with 30 or so tracks on ’em.  Glass Hammer I also did a feature on, plus I’ve just really loved their work in general.  Rip Slyme are always great and every once in a while I have the urge to just listen to all their stuff.  Yes and Aphex Twin have both released new albums this year and when that happens I like to go through the past stuff – It resulted in two articles about the Twin, and the discovery of a bunch of Yes albums I never really gave the time of day to (particularly their 90’s work and stuff like Big Generator).  The rest are just groups I’ve liked this year…Pet Shop Boys of course are classic, Plaid and Saint Etienne are fun listens, and I’ve liked a lot of Swans stuff though I haven’t yet bothered with their recent work yet.  Then you’ve got Baby Einstein which quite frankly I’m getting a little sick of but hey, my one-month old son seems to dig it.

Anyway, let’s talk about the new stuff.  If the title of the album is a link, that means I’ve written something about it, either here or on The Quietus.

2014 Album of the Year: Neil Cicierega – Mouth Silence

mouthsoundsmouthsilence

Straight up, “album of the year” is supposed to be the album you enjoyed the most and straight up there’s no better candidate for this than Neil Cicierega’s Mouth Silence.  Neil of course is a guy whose work has gone viral in many, many different ways.  In 2014 he started doing mash-up work, and like everything else he does it’s both intriguing and completely fucked up.  At first these mash-ups just consisted of him mixing Smash Mouth’s “All Star” in with everything – it turned out to be a totally natural fit with the likes of “Float On”, but Neil kept taking it further and further.  One track, called “Smooth Flow”, managed to smash together Enya’s “Oronoco Flow” and Santana’s “Smooth”, using “All Star” as a bridge, and somehow not sounding like a total trainwreck.  That alone is testament to Neil’s talents as a mash-up artist, but soon enough he realized that perhaps such things could work without relying on Smash Mouth, and thus Mouth Silence was born.  It’s an album I really would love to do a full-length feature on, but let me just say it’s not only hilarious, but it’s downright awesome in spots.  Though there are a few tracks that concentrate on intertwining two different tunes (similar to what the majority of mash-up artists do) there are a number that are practically original compositions, sometimes sampling up to a dozen different songs.  I’ve never been much a fan of mash-ups – the “hip-hop vocals over classic rock” thing always struck me as boring, and Girl Talk always felt like a meaningless exercise to me.  But what Cicierega does is often beyond that; it’s not just all the holy-shit moments or the bits that make you laugh out loud, but just how cohesive he’s able to make these different strands sound together.  It’s stuff that seems absolutely ridiculous on paper; who could possibly think you could reconcile “Crocodile Rock” and “Chop Suey”?  It’s got to be heard to be believed, I’ll tell you what.  And honestly, I can’t say I’ve enjoyed anything this year more.  Go here and download ’em both.

 

Second-best album of 2014: Zammuto – Anchorzammuto

This is a really great disc that I hope gets some more exposure – it’s one of those albums that’s really far out and experimental while remaining accessible and fun.  If you’ve ever listened to his music before, you know that Nick Zammuto is never the type to take the easy way out; everything he does is so controlled and precise without feeling rigid.  What I like about him is that he knows he has a tendency to think about music in a manner that’s very intellectual or dry, and thus with his new band Zammuto he’s taken a lot of steps to loosen things up a bit.  Having a top-flight drummer like Sean Dixon can open up a lot of doors but I think more than that it’s just his willingness to ride broken or unusual grooves like “Great Equator” or “Need Some Sun” without micromanaging things into oblivion. I feel weird saying this is his best work since they’re all so good, but that’s my hot take at the moment.  This is one I’ll be listening to for a while.

 

Third-best album of 2014: Brian Eno & Karl Hyde – High Life

enohydeThese are a couple of guys I have real high expectations for so to say I’m not disappointed by these albums says a lot.  Their first effort, Someday World, was really not bad when you took it for what it was – a bunch of unfinished demos from the Eno vault which Hyde went through and fleshed out into full songs.  That might explain why there seem to be parts “missing” from time to time or why the tunes feel disjointed in spots, though really I feel its biggest crime was those fake synth-horns on the lead-off track, as that alone seemed to put everyone off.  Like a lot of Eno’s collaborative song-based projects, the tunes were mostly goofy and strangely upbeat, and honestly I really liked about half of them.  As a whole it’s a little inconsistent but my overall impression of Someday World is that it’s nowhere near as bad as everyone said, and it contained a number of my favorite songs of the year (“Witness”, “Who Rings the Bell”, “Daddy’s Car”).  I didn’t think it was quite as good as Hyde’s solo disc Edgeland (which I’m still real high on), but for what it was it was alright.  Anyway, the real surprise was that shortly after everyone chewed up and spit out Someday World, Eno and Hyde announced that they had another album in the works, one that was going to be all original material culled from jamming.  With High Life, Eno surprisingly brought back that Brian Eno, the goofball funkmaster that gave us Before and After Science and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  My first impression of this album was that it was a whole host of ideas for LCD Soundsystem to rip off if they hadn’t broken up already; lengthy, two-chord vamps like “Return” and sunnyside-up funk like “Lilac” capture the vibe that Murphy had been chasing for years, and the head-spinning “Time to Waste It” is one of the year’s most intriguing tunes, featuring a vocal that’s beautiful despite being completely mutilated.

 

Fourth-best album of 2014: Future Islands – Singles

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This has been a big year for Future Islands, and honestly I can’t think of too many bands that deserved it more.  I remember seeing the band in 2008, opening for Dan Deacon, and struggling to describe to my friends exactly what I had witnessed – that sort of over-the-top sincerity and showmanship was the sort of thing you would expect from a band like The Darkness, only Future Islands felt totally legit.  They weren’t synth-pop or dance-punk or anything like that, but the seeds were there.  It’s been nice watching them blow up like this – they signed to 4AD and went viral thanks to a totally bonkers performance on Letterman, though as anyone whose followed the band can tell you, that’s the way they are night in and night out.  Singles has all the makings of a breakthrough album for the band; the songs are memorable and intense, without being over-the-top or too wistful the way they could be on albums past.  I mean, On the Water was great; probably my favorite album of 2011 really, but it’s not exactly the sort of disc that’ll win them any new fans.  Hopefully Singles is the beginning of a run for them – it’s hard to think of a band that deserves it more.

 

Anyway, it turns out there are plenty more albums I’ve listened to this year.  Some of these are nearly as good as the four I’ve listed above, or may be even better but I haven’t listened to them yet enough.

 

Raymond Scott Rewired

Information here.  Essentially it’s three mash-up artists (The Bran Flakes, Go Home Productions, and The Evolution Control Committee) given a pass to run wild amongst the entire Raymond Scott collection.  Despite what you might think such a collection may sound like rest assured that it’s generally pretty tasteful; lots of cut n’ paste but nothing overly intrusive like a snare rush or that damn stutter edit.  In fact I believe it’s pretty much all sounds from the originals, sometimes organized in a more modern way but nothing out of place.  Though it’s not quite “authentic” as it were I think you’d struggle to find a better representation of Raymond Scott’s musical output in about an hour – sure, there are collections of it everywhere, but they either miss a big chunk of his work or come rife with unfinished or commercial tracks that get in the way.

Aaron Ackerson – Outside on the Inside

I like albums like this one – Aaron Ackerson is the kind of guy who realizes that he doesn’t really have a standout voice nor incredible instrumental skill, so he compensates by indulging some of his most far-out impulses.  Outside of an obvious homage to Andrew W.K., the songs here don’t really sound like anything else, often combining elements that are disparite or unexpected, giving the impression of a dude just working from memory.  There are so many weird compositional or production decisions that probably wouldn’t have passed on a more ‘professional’ release (not a dig, I swear).  Just check out “The Ninja Song” – it sounds like three songs in totally different genres playing on top of each other, with some wacky Weird Al-gone hip-hop vocals over the top.  The real keepers are the proggy/technopop tunes like “Inside” or “SHC”, and I’m still intrigued by “Taiko no Yastu”, an off-kilter collection of ideas that really goes to hell in the middle.

Aphex Twin – Syro

Personally I think the return of Aphex Twin was one year too late – how neat would it have been if RDJ made his comeback the same year as David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine, Boards of Canada, and Daft Punk?  I think it was only a matter of time before Aphex became Aphex again; he hasn’t been silent since the release of drukqs 13 years ago, but the stuff he has released hasn’t exactly been meant for wide release – his work as The Tuss was destined to be some obscure 12″ until a few people figured out who it actually was.  I suspect measuring Syro against the rest of his catalogue is a mistake – though he’s still got the skill, too much time has passed and the zeitgeist of Richard D. James has died down.  There’s almost no crossover appeal in this one, essentially a collection of meticulously sequenced acid funk which quite frankly uses little outside of the same big analog synths that the techno dudes have been using for decades now.  That said, it’s brilliantly produced, almost certainly the best sounding record of RDJ’s career; the sounds are even deeper and thicker than they were on Rushup Edge and the Analord EP’s.  Still, I suspect the jury’s still out on this one – it clearly is a good album, and maybe even a great one, and it’s going to be on all sorts of year-end lists like this one, though I doubt it’ll find many top spots.  There’s just little to talk about here – not a lot of hooks, almost no gimmicks whatsoever, and nary a curveball thrown until the very last track.  On several listens I’ve totally blanked out the second half up until “Aisatsana” starts and I think, “whoa, that’s it?”.  That’s not to say anything about the quality of the second half of this album – I suspect if you reversed the track order it would be roughly the same thing.  Syro is destined to be one of those albums that fans and critics listen to time and time again in an attempt to reconcile it with the rest of the man’s career and the music landscape of 2014 in general, or barring that just trying to find some sort of opinion on it other than “it’s good”.

FREEMAN – s/t

Not much more to say about this one since I just wrote about it last week.  I will say this though, before having our son we took a long and sort of useless pregnancy class which mostly just showed a bunch of videos of babies being born.  The bumper music had some riff in it that got stuck in my head because it was so close to something I recognized, but I couldn’t figure out what.  Turns out it was “All the Way to China” from this album.  So yeah, five seconds of that tune were stuck in my head for about six hours.  I guess I’ve had worse.

Mike Doughty – Stellar Motel & Live at Ken’s House

Doughty is turning into a real “just when you thought…” guy.  Just when you thought he’d carve out his niche as a thoughtful and unique solo acoustic guy, he decided to dress up his sound and deliver a couple of albums on ATO that sounded, above everything, cluttered and desperate for a hit.  Just when you thought he was running on empty, he decided to listen to his fans, strip it down, and stop overextending himself.  Just when you thought he’d put his Soul Coughing completely behind him, he wrote a book on the subject, burning it all to the ground – and just when you thought he’d shunned that era of his life completely, he comes back with a collection of Soul Coughing covers.  And just when you thought Doughty had completely missed why Soul Coughing fans enjoyed the band in the first place, you get Live at Ken’s House, a live-in-studio collection of his old band’s tunes that show that maybe he gets it after all, turning up the drums and bass, bringing back a bit of that freewheeling energy, and most importantly, allowing things to get fucked up a bit.  Granted, Live at Ken’s House has some glaring missteps (see: both takes of “Super Bon Bon”, but one in particular…), but it immediately struck me as that album that the SC covers album should’ve been.

As for Stellar Motel, it’s again a surprise – essentially it is the hip-hop album a lot of people hoped Doughty was going to try 15 years ago, and to be honest it’s pretty good.  Certainly not great, but it’s fun, and impressively fearless – it’s as though Doughty finally decided to stop trying to please his fans or his label (though I don’t think he’s been on an actual label for a few years now) and just say “fuck it”.  Some real great songs here, some that’ll make you scratch your head, and some that’ll get lodged in your head whether or like it or not.  I think I’ll call it a win for Doughty, who certainly has displayed an inability to stay still or stick himself in a rut, despite the fact that he’s been releasing records for 20 years now.

 

But wait…there’s more!  Tune in next week!!!

 

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The Books – Thought for Food (2002)

bookI enjoyed the new Zammuto album so much that I figured I’d take a look back at his past work. It’s hard to believe I’ve been listening The Books for nearly a decade now. Despite the “folktronica” label that a lot of reviewers and RYM seem to give them, the music of The Books hasn’t aged much – like, say, Can’s Future Days, it feels a bit out of time. It could have been made long ago, it could be made 20 years from now. I try not to say this much on this website but The Books really were a one-of-a-kind band. They consisted of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, who played guitar and violin respectively, but really they were more than just musicians. Nick was the sort to analyze the mathematical qualities of sine waves and study the effects of certain sounds on the human body, while Paul had an obsession with audio and video obscurities and possessed a large library of both. The Books played a sort of music that was soft and acoustic, but threw a lot of experimentation and samples over the top. Essentially it is folk mixed with plunderphonics, though their approach to the latter was unique. With most plunderphonic groups, the more obscure the better – I recognize a very small portion of the samples on a Bran Flakes album, which is a big part of their charm. But they still drew these samples mostly from old LPs and TV, stuff that was rehearsed and made for commercial use. The Books use some of this as well, but they take things a step further, drawing from home movies and answering machine tapes found in thrift stores, ensuring samples that nobody could possibly identify (or worse, use for themselves).

Thought for Food and The Lemon of Pink, released in 2002 and 2003 respectively, both seemed like big deal records at the time. Most reviews were the sort of wistful junk that Pitchfork still publishes on occasion (“I walked past a food truck in Albany while the sun painted the clouds an explosive orange…”), as it really hit a nerve with some people. The Books weren’t exactly some left-field act, but they lived in their own world and had such boundless potential. Hence, when the band split in 2012, it really felt like the end of something important. This, despite the fact that they only released two albums after 2003, and neither of them received the same kind of acclaim. That’s not exactly fair; all four of their albums are really good, and if anything they got more adept over time.  But they’re the sort of band that you always remember your first exposure to (see also: Aphex Twin), and for me that was Thought For Food.

I decided to go back and listen to Thought for Food again in an attempt to remember how special this record really was. You hear it right away; on the first track you can hear samples drift in and out, as if someone is flipping channels on the TV – “Eagle!”, “Fault”, “Gentlemen, good luck”. These are the kind of vocal fragments The Books love; stuff that is tied to a particular event or captures a particular moment, and really isn’t meant to be used in this sort of context. The samples used usually aren’t played rhythmically nor are they repeated. That alone makes the group feel different from other Plunderphonic groups; they’re not DJs, for Christ’s sake. But what sets The Books apart is their sense of space. I get confused by the description of the group as anything-“tronica”, as the acoustic and human elements are usually very prevalent. You can hear the hands on the guitar body, the strings ringing out against the inside of the instrument, the violin being plucked, glasses clinking against each other, and so on. Most descriptions of their music don’t touch on how few extraneous elements there ever seem to be; every sound is thought out and deliberately placed. It is profound but it does not lead. It is layered but there are few overlaps.  It is dense but it is also slight. It is rhythmic but uses no drums.

Clearly there is something special about this album and this group; for once you don’t know what the influences are. Their usage of samples is the album’s most notable aspect, as they drive the music in all sorts of odd ways. A track like “All Bad Ends All” seems to follow the inflections and patterns of the voices (jumbled speech is accompanied by jumbled plucking), while the countdown in “All Our Base Are Belong to Them” (see? Not dated at all…) espouses a celebratory mood that plays against the somber music that follows. They interact with these voices in ways that I’ve never heard – the frantic rambling of the woman in “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again” is gently led by someone (De Jong?) reading the text in a monotone inflection in the background. “Getting the Job Done” evolves into a strung-together folk song with Zammuto singing along with disparate lines. Now I could be wrong about all this; there is so much recontextualizing going on in everything The Books do that it’s nearly impossible to explain. For instance, it’s recently come to my attention that the dialogue in “Contempt” is originally from a 1963 movie of the same name, but the scene that is used is originally between a man and woman; “Contempt” edits (or re-records) it to be between two men (“Do you think I have a pretty backside? Do you like all of me, my mouth, my eyes, my nose, my ears?”). Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to be creepy? Is it supposed to be profound?

“Motherless Bastard” is a great example of this; the dialogue that opens the track is apparently just a dad pulling a prank on his daughter, but taken on its own, it sounds almost shockingly cruel, and the beautiful, despondent music that follows doesn’t exactly make it any clearer. It’s a tune I’ve heard singled out in nearly every review, but it seems as though everyone gets something different out of it. That sort of ambiguity is difficult to pull off in music; once lyrics become too dense people tend to tune them out. But The Books have so many more tools at their disposal that their world seems to be so much bigger.

Thought for Food radiates that kind of potential; it is part music and part thought experiment. But what to make of Thought for Food as a whole? The sampling seems to die down at the end, with tracks like “Mikey Bass” (a bunch of bass lines layered on top of each other a la Chris Squire) or “Excess Straussess” (violin melodies repeatedly phasing in and out). Likewise there are the final two tracks, barely over a minute long each, one a seemingly incomplete thought (“A Dead Fish Gains the Power of Observation”, the other an oppressive rumble of cut-up kids voices (“Deafkids”). There is a lack of cohesion for sure, but given the collage nature of their work this really isn’t an issue.

This has been a particularly good album for me to rediscover, as my mind is able to connect more dots than it could a decade ago. A careful listen with headphones revealed a ton of detail I didn’t remember; nothing was quite that straightforward, even the more upbeat and catchy tunes like “All Bad Ends All” and “Thankyoubranch”. More surprising was that I was left emotionally wrecked by the whole thing and I can’t really explain why. Music by nature is emotional, but it usually hits broader feelings such as beauty, nostalgia, anger, loneliness, and so on. The Books hit something more refined; not just a feeling of “nostalgia” but a reminder of something very specific in your life.  Of course, half of this is the music and half is the listener.  A lot of the cleverness will be lost on you if you treat this as just background music.

If you’ve ever heard of the Found Footage Festival, or stayed up too late following a rabbit hole on YouTube, you’ve probably seen those videos, the stuff that, without the internet, would be lost to time forever – the bad commercial, the bizarre instructional video, or the strange home movie.  There’s a beauty in restoring this stuff, and just reveling in the sense of the moment, especially once all context is removed.  There is a huge internet subculture devoted to these kind of videos; Tim and Eric have made a successful career out of duplicating that whole aesthetic, and much of what Neil Cicierega does taps into that as well.  I think there are a number of bands that played into this feeling – I’m thinking mostly of Negativland here, but there are plenty more like them (again, just type “plunderphonics” into Google and you’ll find a bunch).  Still, nobody did it quite like The Books.